Back in 1974, Henry Kissinger was asked if he was going to talk about national politics with the Italian president Giovanni Leone. He replied that he was not, as “the Italian political situation is too complicated for me to understand” . Little has changed since the Seventies with Italian politics still puzzling international observers, and Italian voters as well. Political turmoil reached a peak with the March elections when the two opposing populists parties won record vote shares, with no clear resulting majority in parliament.
The two parties deemed as “populist” by most observers because of their anti-establishment discourse–the League (Lega) and the Five Stars Movement (M5S)—have most recently emerged as the main characters of the political scene in Italy.
The Lega was born in 1989 as a regional party advocating for the secession of the northern part of the country. The party at the time was openly racist to Southerners (who were moving to the North in search of jobs) and formed a coalition with the newborn Forza Italia, founded by Silvio Berlusconi. The Lega maintained its alliance with Berlusconi for more than 25 years, while at the same time shifting towards a more moderate rhetoric. The 2013 elections were a turning point: the Lega suffered a serious electoral defeat after a series of scandals. The young Matteo Salvini took the leadership of the party after ousting its older leaders and radically reformed its political positions in an attempt to broaden its electoral base in the South, while adopting an anti-immigrant and euroskeptic discourse. In the recent elections for the first time the Lega won more votes than Forza Italia, becoming the major partner of the centre-right coalition.
The Five Stars Movement was founded exactly twenty years after the Lega, in the wake of the economic crisis, by the comedian Beppe Grillo. The Movement blamed the traditional parties from the right and the left for the economic situation and advocated for the replacement of the whole ruling class and for a larger role of common citizens in the decision-making process through direct democracy. The M5S is also very critical of the EU institutions and of the financial sector, claiming that abandoning the Euro and regaining the ability to devalue the national currency would result in better economic performance. The party participated in national elections for the first time in 2013, winning 22% of the vote popular vote, and, in the most recent March elections, became the party with most seats in the parliament with 32% of the vote.
Figure 1- Majority Party by District, March 2018 Elections. Green: Lega, Yellow: M5S, Orange: Democratic Party. Credit: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0,
Despite their common euroskeptic and anti-establishment grounds, the two parties have many conflicting priorities, especially on economic and fiscal policy, with the Lega promising a flat tax and the M5S a universal basic income in the form of an extended unemployment subsidy. The M5S were also very critical of the Lega’s ally Silvio Berlusconi. This led to a stalemate after the elections as the M5S refused to form a government with Berlusconi.
Eventually, Salvini decided to leave his historical ally and started negotiating a coalition with the M5S. After more than a month, on May 27, the two leaders agreed on a common programme and a “neutral” candidate for the prime minister. The programme included both a flat tax rate and a basic income, for a total estimated expenditure of more than 100 billion Euros annually without indicating any coverage.
At this point, events took an unexpected turn when the President of the Republic vetoed the candidate chosen to serve as Minister of the Economy: Paolo Savona, a 80-year-old heterodox Professor of economics, who repeatedly expressed the need for a realistic plan to exit the common currency in case the EU refused to allow Italy more fiscal flexibility. The two populist parties at first refused to give up on Savona’s nomination, calling for a snap election to solve the impasse. The uncertainty that followed caused the interest rates on Italian government bonds to more than double. After a few days however, the Lega and the M5S accepted a compromise, moving Mr. Savona to the Ministry of European Affairs and nominating the much more moderate Mr. Tria at the Ministry of the Economy, eventually opening the way for the new government, that was sworn in on June 1.
It is hard to explain the behaviour of the populists: Mr. Savona is just a late comer in their team and such an important decision as exiting from the European Union does not depend just on the Minister of the Economy, so his role does not seem crucial. The move could be more easily explained by the poll results and the electoral calculations made by Salvini and the M5S, at first preferring a new election and then changing their mind.
The balance of power in the new government seems largely in favour of the Lega, with 7 ministers out of 14, despite the smaller vote share. How long the government will last mostly depends on how the voters will react on the forthcoming decisions it will be called to take. A first challenge will be the financial law for 2019, due in December, where the two parties will show if and when they will fulfil their electoral promises. Migration and the reform of the Dublin system is another hot topic, about which the new government will have to show some actual results in the negotiations with the EU.
The two parties will have to maintain the popularity among their electoral base, which voted for them largely in protest against the previously ruling parties. This is especially true for the M5S, whose constituency is relatively more left-wing than the Lega and may be disappointed if the government takes a stronger right-wing turn. On its side, the Lega is still bounded to its former ally Silvio Berlusconi and cannot risk upsetting the old media entrepreneur as they rule many regions and municipalities together. Yet, if they manage to overcome these challenges and the voters reward the new government actions, the two populist forces may form an almost invincible electoral ticket in the next election, with the Lega capable of winning the majority of the districts in the north and the M5S dominating the south.
Martino Olivari is an LSE MPA candidate, formerly consultant at Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Institute for International Political Studies. Interested in migration and European Politics.